The Nostalgia Bone : Throughline The global pandemic has spawned a different type of epidemic, one of an entirely different nature: a nostalgia outbreak. Longing for 'simpler times' and 'better days', many of us have been turning to 90s dance playlists, TV sitcoms, and sports highlights. We're looking for comfort and safety in the permanence of the past, or at least, what we think the past was. But, when it first appeared, nostalgia itself wasn't considered a feeling; it was a deadly disease. This episode traces the history of nostalgia from its origins as an illness to the dominating emotion of our time. And in doing so, we wrestle with its eternal paradox to both hold us back and keep us going.

The Nostalgia Bone

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GRAFTON TANNER: When I was younger, probably about 10 or 11 years old, my grandmother actually gifted me a cassette player for my birthday. At that age, I didn't own CDs or MP3 player or something. I definitely didn't own any cassette tapes. My mom decided to drive me to this store that was called Media Play. It doesn't exist anymore. And I knew that I wanted Daft Punk's 2001 album called "Discovery." And so we bought it. This was around September, going into October. And I just listened to it all the time - religiously, constantly.

So it was this really crucial moment in my life where a few things converged, like my introduction into music that I really loved and enjoying a change of season and being a young person and having that freedom. And to this day, I still listen to that record. It's in my car. My car - I have an older car. It has a tape deck, and so I can pop it in, and it kind of transports me back to that time period.


TANNER: It gives me this sort of, like, lump in my throat kind of feeling. But it's not sadness. You know, it's not something that I necessarily mourn. Like, I don't want to go back to being 10 years old. You know, I like being an adult (laughter).

But it's almost just like a visceral feeling, that lump in my throat and the misty-eyed kind of feeling that I get. And my face gets a little red. My brain kind of shuts down, and my body's responses sort of take over. It's more than just a tradition. It literally is like an embodied experience.


DAFT PUNK: (Singing) One more time, we're going to celebrate. Oh, yeah - all right. Don't stop the dancing. One more time...

TANNER: Every year, the tape sounds a little bit more worn down. It's a little bit more warped. One of these days, I'm kind of afraid that I'm going to pop it in and it's just - it's going to be so degraded that I won't be able to make any sense out of it anymore. But at that point, I might - myself might be so old that I may not, you know, recognize it anymore as this nostalgic talisman. Who knows.



I'm Rund Abdelfatah.


And I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. Today on the show, the history of nostalgia and its eternal paradox to both hold us back and keep us going.

ABDELFATAH: Producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson takes it from here.


LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: I'm sitting in the corner of my parents' living room in the house I grew up in. Cat Stevens' "Tea For The Tillerman" album cover is pressed between my knees, and my fingers trace the track titles for the thousandth time. I know the order by heart - "Where Do The Children Play?"...


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ..."Hard Headed Woman"...


CAT STEVENS: (Singing) La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ..."Wild World," "Sad Lisa" - really deep cut...


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...And my favorite, "Miles From Nowhere."


STEVENS: (Singing) Miles from nowhere; guess I'll take my time. Oh, yeah.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And when I'm leaned up against the pulsing speakers, it's just me, Cat Stevens and the Tillerman, whoever that is. It's just us.


STEVENS: (Singing) Miles from nowhere; guess I'll take my time - oh, yeah - to reach the end.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: That's where I'm transported when I hear this album. It's like a trapdoor or a chute that plucks me from the present moment and punts me back to that general time - my childhood. And when I choose to hear this music, it's to evoke the same emotion that Daft Punk brings up in Grafton Tanner; an emotion that washes over you when the weather changes or the sky turns a certain color or that song comes on the radio and suddenly you're in two places at once, thinking fondly of the past and mourning it all at the same time - nostalgia.

TANNER: Well, I've been researching nostalgia for several years now.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Grafton Tanner is a communications studies professor at the University of Georgia, and he's written two books about nostalgia. The most recent one has a great title. It's called "The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics Of Nostalgia."

TANNER: I think that nostalgia is sort of the defining emotion of our time in that the last 20 years has seen one kind of nostalgia wave after the other.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Nostalgia is hard to pin down. It's not necessarily happy or sad. It doesn't make you feel good or bad. The emotion can wash over you thanks to a cool fall breeze or a smell wafting over from a neighbor's kitchen or an old photo you've never even seen before.

TANNER: I would say that nostalgia is a longing for a home in the past. It might be imagined. It might be cobbled together. It might be even distorted. It doesn't mean that it's true or false, it just means that it might be kind of imperfect because memory sometimes is imperfect.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But for all its ambiguity, nostalgia does reliably offer one thing - an escape away from the uncertainty of the future and towards the permanence of the past.

TANNER: And I wanted to know if that's a good thing because nostalgia has for a long time gotten a bad rap, as being this obstacle in the way of progress. We can't move forward if we're always looking back. This is certainly a discourse that's been around for a long time. So I wanted to know if it was good for us individually and also as a society. And finding that out, I think, meant figuring out what nostalgia is and how it's used by different people.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Our new normal is full of constant instability. The future feels like a swerving car on a narrow road with no guardrail, flirting with the edge of the cliff. So it makes sense that this idea of permanence rooted in our memories of the past brings some comfort, even if those memories are painful. Even if the past wasn't so great, it still was. And that sense of knowing, of having something to hold on to, is what many of us are looking for as we barrel towards this uncertainty, this cliff. Nostalgia takes us to that warm, reliable place of before.

But this emotion has lived many lives. And before it was thought of as a marketing scheme, political strategy, a beat-up cassette tape or simply summer turning to fall, nostalgia wasn't an emotion at all. It was a deadly disease.

I'm Laine Kaplan-Levenson. And today, we trace the history of nostalgia from its origins as an illness to a defining emotion of our time.


MIA CHANG: Hi. My name is Mia Chang (ph). I'm calling from London, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. I feel nostalgic when it's fall, during this time of the year, because the colder weather - it reminds me of the time when I used to see all my friends back in school. Around this time, it's also Korean Thanksgiving or Chuseok, and that makes me miss my family and the dinners that we used to have.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1, BYLINE: Part 1 - Mother's Milk.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Nevertheless, I long. I pine all my days to travel home and see the dawn of my return. And if a god will wreck me yet again on the wine-dark sea, I can bear that too with a spirit tempered to endure. Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now in the waves and wars. Add this to the total. Bring the trial on.

Homer - "The Odyssey."


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In the 1680s, a group of Swiss soldiers stationed abroad started coming down with a mysterious disease. They fainted. They hallucinated. They claimed they saw ghosts and heard voices. Autumn seemed to be a particular trigger. As the leaves changed colors and fell to the ground, the soldiers found that they couldn't fight. They couldn't eat. They could barely rise out of bed in the morning. They were sick, and it was spreading, which piqued the interest of a young, ambitious medical student...

TANNER: ...Named Johannes Hofer, who was 19 at the time when he started hearing stories about this strange disease that was infecting Swiss mercenaries. The disease caused this intense form of homesickness. If you caught it, you longed for home-cooked meals. Soldiers longed for their mothers, their normal lives back home before they started fighting. And so, intrigued by this at just 19 years old, he decided to write his medical dissertation on the disease. And he eventually decided to call it nostalgia, from the Greek words nostos and algia, which are homecoming and ache roughly translated.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The ache for home, whatever that concept of home might mean. Johannes Hofer's dissertation gave a name to this unnamed disease and went on to describe its symptoms, which, in addition to seeing ghosts, included sadness, disturbed sleep, weakness, hunger, thirst, heart palpitations, frequent sighs and, quote, "stupidity of the mind - attending to nothing hardly other than the idea of the fatherland."

TANNER: He even wrote that the sick people who have nostalgia...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Johannes Hofer) ...When they are sent forth to foreign lands with alien customs, do not know how to accustom themself to the manners of living nor to forget their mother's milk.

TANNER: And without treatment, so the stories go, many of these mercenaries died from nostalgia.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: There were conflicting opinions about what actually caused nostalgia. Hofer thought it was nerve vibrations that viscerally channeled the homeland; or more specifically...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Johannes Hofer) ...The quite continuous vibration of animal spirits through those fibers of the middle brain in which impressed traces of ideas of the fatherland still cling.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Other doctors argued it was caused by changes in atmospheric pressure, while others claimed it was caused by cowbells. Yes, cowbells, which were apparently clanging incessantly throughout the Swiss countryside and were thought to cause eardrum damage. Cowbells were the noise pollution of the day, but they were also desperately missed when not in earshot - the sound of home. So whether it was pressure changes, cowbells or various other theories of the root cause of the disease, Hofer said there was basically only one cure that would actually work.

TANNER: Unless the sufferer was sent back home, then the condition could be fatal, and the person who had nostalgia could die.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It's impossible to know whether these Swiss soldiers were actually dying from nostalgia, but some of their death certificates said as much. And military physicians and generals were extremely concerned with these kinds of outbreaks, especially because Hofer's proposed cure was a no-go.

TANNER: They didn't really want to send soldiers back home or mercenaries back home because then they wouldn't have men of fighting age. And so they tried to prevent nostalgia from spreading to begin with. And what they would do is they would ban certain songs from being whistled. You couldn't sing certain popular songs from back home because they thought that a familiar melody might trigger this outbreak of yearning, and then it might rip through the ranks.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Like the Ranz des Vaches melodies; cow-herding music that Swiss herders played as they drove their cattle down from the mountains on long horns that went from their lips all the way to the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This music was such a nostalgia trigger that playing, singing or merely whistling the tune could get you killed.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: There was so much anxiety about community spread that military doctors tried almost anything before resorting to sending soldiers home.

TANNER: They would try bleeding the soldiers - you know, all of the older medical procedures that we don't do anymore. They would apply leeches. But then there were some other sort of strange kind of extreme things that they would try. They would try to scare the nostalgia out of the soldiers, terrorizing them or threatening to burn them with hot irons or threatening to bury them alive. There's even rumors that some soldiers were buried alive. Sometimes the military doctors would quarantine the nostalgic sufferers. They would lock them in these high towers because they thought maybe they needed fresh air. But of course, the isolation only made the nostalgia worse.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It goes without saying that nostalgia existed way before the word itself did. People fought wars. People left home. People got homesick and yearned for an idea of home that no longer exists or never existed at all. For instance, Homer's "Odyssey," one of the oldest epics written around the 8th century BCE, is thought of by some as the nostalgia poem even though the word nostalgia never appears in the text.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Nevertheless, I long. I pine all my days to travel home and see the dawn of my return.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The story is all about the protagonist, Odysseus, and his decade-long struggle to return home after the Trojan War. As Hofer would say, he missed his mother's milk. So nostalgia existed way before Hofer said so, and it existed all over the world, not just in Europe.

TANNER: And it's certainly the case that nostalgia or sentiments like nostalgia, words that are similar to nostalgia show up in various cultures over the past few centuries.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: One of my favorite words is saudade, a Portuguese word that doesn't have a direct English translation but refers to a deep, melancholic longing for something or someone lost or out of reach. Portuguese writer Manuel de Mello calls it a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.


VINICIUS DE MORAES: (Singing in non-English language).

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And nostalgia is clearly not just a Western phenomenon. There's versions of the idea in Japan...


HIBARI MISORA: (Singing in Japanese).



KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...Ethiopia...


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...All over the world.


TANNER: I wanted to focus mainly on a Western conception of nostalgia, primarily because even though it's not necessarily of Western sentiment, the word itself has been Westernized and born out of a Western context and continues to develop in Western media.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And it was in the West where this sentiment was first medicalized, taking us back to those Swiss soldiers. But soon enough, it wasn't just a Swiss thing. Western physicians were diagnosing nostalgia in British soldiers fighting to colonize India and in French soldiers fighting the Napoleonic Wars. Nostalgia was spreading alongside imperialism at a time when European powers were sending men across the world to expand their empires.

TANNER: They were trying to mobilize units with so many citizen soldiers - millions of citizen soldiers - drafted into service and told, essentially, to fight for their country if they really loved their country. When you feel like you've lost control, then certainly you're going to yearn for that control back.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Nostalgia also showed up years later in American soldiers during the Civil War. If you weren't sent home, letters were the second-best cure. The Philadelphia Inquirer urged the public to send soldiers mail, saying it would literally fend off the disease. But while the soldiers were being diagnosed left and right, others were thought incapable of feeling nostalgia. Those whose worlds were perhaps most violently upended, who were forced from their homes, separated from their families, shipped across the ocean and enslaved.

TANNER: Before the Civil War, white slave owners believed that enslaved people were incapable of forging any attachment to home, and so, therefore, wouldn't feel homesickness. There's a scholar of nostalgia. Her name is Badia Ahad-Legardy. And she's written that we don't really have a lot of research on the nostalgia of slaves because the medical establishment in the antebellum period literally didn't believe that slaves could feel nostalgic.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It wasn't just the medical establishment. Most white people who bought and sold Black people did not think they were capable of having the same feelings as them or even getting the same diseases. It was impossible for them to conceive any sort of shared experience with the people they enslaved. Thomas Jefferson said it himself.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Thomas Jefferson) Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath are less felt and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.

TANNER: Well, when they were enslaved, they were not seen as human. They were seen as property. And so, of course, human emotions wouldn't apply to property unless the property got sick and couldn't work, and then maybe the medical establishment would come in and diagnose them with a strictly-slave-type disease, like the madness to flee the plantation or something.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Denying nostalgia in Black people directly contributed to scientific racism. Instead of diagnosing enslaved people with the same disease as soldiers fighting in the Civil War, pseudoscientific terms like drapetomania appeared in medical journals to describe a mental illness that gave enslaved people the uncontrollable impulse to run away. It comes from the Greek drapetes, which means an escape and madness. The suggested cure - regular whipping. Drapetomania was strictly created to pathologize Black people who sought freedom.

TANNER: This wasn't the first time that nostalgia had been denied from a group of people.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In 1830, when President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, he said he understood that Native Americans would be sad to have their lands taken from them, but didn't see how it would feel any different than when European settlers chose to move out West.

TANNER: He couldn't understand why they'd be so upset over forced migration.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Andrew Jackson) Our children, by thousands yearly, leave the land of their birth to seek new homes in distant regions. Does humanity weep at these painful separations from everything, animate and inanimate, with which the young heart has become entwined?


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Nostalgia was wildly misunderstood. It was withheld from many who experienced it and falsely diagnosed as a deadly disease in others, like soldiers on the battlefield. And this narrow view continued, along with the only known cure - to return people home. The Problem was, it didn't work.

TANNER: When, of course, the citizen soldiers went back to being just citizens, they brought the nostalgia with them, so to speak. They yearned for home. When they came back home, home had changed.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And war had changed them.

TANNER: And so nostalgia used to be an ally to them at war, and its ghost kind of followed them back home and sort of haunted them. And so if you wanted to trace nostalgia as this spreading agent, it kind of spreads from the military out into society.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And perplexed the medical community yet again. If nostalgia was thought of as homesickness, but returning home didn't cure the disease, then they were back to Square 1 - not to mention the fact that doctors never found a sick bone in any soldier's body. So what was nostalgia? It wasn't just about war, and it wasn't just about home. It's almost as if it had more to do with time than with place. It was about change.

TANNER: There were currents that started to shift nostalgia from a disease to an emotion.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: When we come back, nostalgia ditches war for romance.


DAN: This is Dan (ph) from Berlin, Germany. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. Lately, I've been rewatching "Broad City." I found I needed to return to a time that feels like now, except without a pandemic or glaring, incipient fascism. Plus, I love to laugh, and I already rewatched all of "Hacks."



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3, BYLINE: (Reading) What though the radiance, which was once so bright, be now forever taken from my sight. Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower, we will grieve not, rather, find strength in what remains behind - William Wordsworth.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: After about 100 years searching for a literal nostalgia bone in the body, doctors started to slowly give up on the idea that nostalgia was a physical illness. Over the course of the 19th century, there was a growing consensus that Johannes Hofer, the 19-year-old med student who coined the word, was wrong. Nostalgia wasn't a disease, and it wasn't straight-up homesickness. It wasn't an incurable illness, but an incurable, modern condition in reaction to modernity itself.

TANNER: There was some thought that maybe progress and industrialization might eradicate nostalgia. But this really wasn't the case.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The world was modernizing, and more people were moving from place to place, whether by choice or force. And in all that change, there was a loss of control, a loss of what you once knew. It could be because you found yourself in another country, surrounded by new food, culture and language, or because, for the first time, you're leaving your land and showing up to a workplace with a boss...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: Stevens (ph).

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...Telling you what to do.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: Hold on tight now.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: I remember you say something in your book about how there are people moving from place to place having this experience, and then there are people not leaving the countryside that they've lived in their whole lives, but seeing that change. They're staying in place, and all of a sudden, they don't recognize their homeland, and that can induce the same feeling.

TANNER: Absolutely. Some of those people aren't necessarily moving around. They're staying put. But their lives are changing because of the introduction of industrial processes and how they work and make money suddenly becomes very standardized. And then time itself becomes standardized at a certain point.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The five-day workweek was a direct product of industrialization.

TANNER: And these sort of conditioning tactics would eventually prepare these citizens to work in the factories later on, when they certainly felt like they had no control over their lives because they were working all the time.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This was a time when time itself started to be viewed differently, with the hours of the day designed around mass industrialization and in advancing global economy. Things felt different. And there was a shared yearning for how things were, whether people left home or not. Nostalgia was showing up in factory workers, students, migrants - people adapting to a modernizing world. And this rise of industry naturally came with a counterculture movement - romance.


TANNER: There was a major shift in the 19th century with the rise of Romanticism and the romantics of the 19th century celebrating sentiments and emotion.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Romanticism was a cultural movement that reshaped art, music, literature and philosophy over the course of the 19th century. It was, in many ways, a direct reaction against the previous age of Enlightenment, which centered on rationalism and reason, as well as industry, with its tight schedules, repetitive motions and mechanization. Romanticism was about the exact opposite - the imagination, subjectivity and emotions. And nostalgia got absorbed into the movement and turned into a literary sensibility to help express the angst of the period.

TANNER: A famous example would be the poetry of Wordsworth.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: William Wordsworth, an English poet known for helping to launch the English Romantic Movement.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: Thus, nature spake. The work was done.

TANNER: Wordsworth wrote the Lucy poems...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: How soon my Lucy's race was run.

TANNER: ...From this perspective of this narrator who longs for this unknown woman named Lucy who he could never get to.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: She died and left to me this heath, this calm and quiet scene...

TANNER: It's absolutely a series of nostalgic poems because it's written in this very highly emotional, yearning kind of language.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: ...The memory of what has been and nevermore will be.


TANNER: Romantic nostalgia was also crucial to the building of nations. The yearning for some long-lost homeland - that would turn a nation's past or its history into what we would call, like, a heritage or something.

As an example of that, I'm often reminded of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Its constant preservation and restoration is one symptom of France's nostalgia for its own heritage, and a very romantic nostalgia at that. Victor Hugo's novel, for example, "Hunchback Of Notre Dame," which came out in the 1830s, is essentially, like, Notre Dame propaganda written in this romantic way.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: At the time, Notre Dame was in huge disrepair and an eyesore to residents. And Victor Hugo was not only a French writer, but an architectural preservationist who in the 1800s started to see Gothic-era buildings being demolished across Paris. Hugo was determined to save Notre Dame and in 1831 published a novel set in the 1400s, the Gothic era, about Quasimodo, the bell ringer and foremost lover of the cathedral.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: And the cathedral was not only society for him, but the universe and all nature beside. He dreamed of no other hedgerows than the painted windows, always in flower; no other shade than that...

TANNER: That nostalgia for the cathedral in particular sparked interest in the 1830s for restoring Notre Dame.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: ...Of no other mountain than the colossal towers of the church; of no other ocean than Paris, roaring at their bases.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It worked. In 1844, the restoration project began.

TANNER: The irony there is that the constant restoration of that particular cathedral, built upon this nostalgic Romantic impulse, actually increases the risk of the cathedral falling victim to things like fire, which is what we think happened in 2019 when Notre Dame burned, that that was actually a result of it being restored too much or there was an attempt to renovate it too much. And it's kind of this lesson we can learn about trying to restore the past completely and fully and that it might actually end up in destruction of the thing that we long for.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The Romantic era was just one stream of nostalgia that fed into a global artistic expression of longing, yearning and reckoning with past and present as time barreled on. As the world continued to rapidly change and old ways of life slipped through people's fingers, they grasped on to what was left - memories; memories of where they'd been, what they'd had and who they used to be. Nostalgia became a name for the pleasure and pain in the space between the certainty of the past and the uncertainty of what was to come.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: When we're born, emotional reactions are pretty much the same in everyone. But as we grow older, each of us develops his own individual set of response pattern. Why is that?

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The mid-20th century was a turning point in the psychological study of emotions.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: And so we have examples of each of the three basic emotions - fear, rage and love.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...And nostalgia, which was being seriously studied as an emotion, perhaps thanks to the Romantic-era art world taking it under its wing. So in some ways, these psychological developments were sort of life imitating art. But some doctors were still on the fence.

TANNER: Even as nostalgia starts to be considered more of a mood or an emotion through the 20th century, you still have some who think that it is pathological and needs to be cured out of people. There are a number of texts written in the first half of the 20th century by positivist psychologists and criminal psychologists, in fact, trying to find links between what they would see as, like, aberrant behaviors and perhaps this thing called nostalgia. They were wondering perhaps if nostalgia could cause people to commit crimes.

There were stories of young women committing arson because they were nostalgic. They moved away to work, and they longed for home, and they ended up, like, burning down the place where they worked. And this just sent psychologists down several rabbit holes trying to figure out if nostalgia actually - the seed of the disease might not be in the body. It might be in the brain. And this was something that was talked about even through the days of psychoanalysis in the 1950s, all the way up until the Vietnam War, when in reality, people were just feeling what we would define today as just a regular human emotion.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Except for a few rogue psychologists, by the mid-1950s and '60s, nostalgia was no longer considered a malady, but a mood. This shift chipped away at the stigma previously associated with being nostalgic, and it became more and more culturally accepted, if not embraced. And once that was the case, nostalgia became more than a mood. It became marketable.

TANNER: Right. As soon as nostalgia is considered to be not that bad and not pathological, then people might ask, well, then what can we use it for then? If we don't want to cure it out of people, and if it's something that people are just going to feel, then how might we direct those feelings?


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: When we come back, nostalgia gets down to business.


JARED HOWREY: Hi. My name is Jared Howrey (ph). I'm calling from Pueblo, Colo. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. I've been feeling really nostalgic listening to that kind of '90s pop rock scene that was around for a while - you know, like "Semi-Charmed Life," "Two Princes," that kind of thing. And it's really helped with how much I miss home. And I've always loved how music can do that so easily - just kind of bring you back to what you love and what you value most.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4, BYLINE: Part 3 - The Nostalgia Tale.


CHARLES FOX AND NORMAN GIMBEL: (Singing) Sunday, Monday, happy days. Tuesday, Wednesday, happy days. Thursday, Friday, happy days. The weekend comes, the cycle hums, ready to race to you.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It's 1974. The U.S. has withdrawn from Vietnam after a decade of war. A counterculture movement has swept through the country and sparked a political backlash. And "Happy Days" has debuted on TV, a show about growing up in the American Midwest during the 1950s - the era of drive-ins, hair gel, leather jackets - basically, the Fonz.


SETH MACFARLANE: (As Peter Griffin) The Fonz be with you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) And also with you.

MACFARLANE: (As Peter Griffin) Let us ayyy (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Ayyy.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It might seem like a weird show to arrive at such a charged time. But Grafton Tanner says that was probably why it was so popular.

TANNER: By the mid- to late-1970s, plenty of people were nostalgic for the 1950s.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The home they've always dreamed of, the happiest investment they have ever made - at last, the Bryans (ph) have all the space they need - big floor-to-ceiling closets for each member of the family...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Clearly, the 1950s were the happy days to some people.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: This is how American families are living in their new homes.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Sure. If you were white and middle class, like most of the characters in that show, the 1950s might have seemed pretty good. You could easily buy a home in the suburbs. Your job was stable. You and your kids could play catch in your backyard with a cocker spaniel named Spot - all comfortably predictable. But that remembrance of the '50s isn't what the decade was actually like. The Korean War, a nuclear arms race, Jim Crow - all that got glossed over with a whole lot of pomade.


BARRY PEARL: (As Doody) You're a sick man, Putz.

KELLY WARD: (As Putzie) Hey.


PEARL: (As Doody) Hey, I want to hear about what Danny did at the beach.

MICHAEL TUCCI: (As Sonny) Yeah.

JEFF CONAWAY: (As Kenickie) Yeah.

TANNER: Then "Grease" comes out a few years later.


JOHN TRAVOLTA: (As Danny, singing) Summer lovin', had me a blast.

OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN: (As Sandy, singing) Summer lovin', happened so fast.

TANNER: And it's around this time when these movies are pretty popular that you have some marketing and admin-type folks starting to talk about whether or not the nostalgia market is really a thing and whether or not certain products could go through the normal life cycle. And after they decline in popularity, might they get popular again?

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In other words, was there a way to make your nostalgia profitable for them? Granted, different people are nostalgic for different things. Some of that has to do with where you grow up and when. And some people aren't nostalgic at all. But maybe there are things that fall in the center of the nostalgia Venn diagram that appeal to the masses.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Baking holiday cookies has always been a family tradition at our house.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) It's easy with Pillsbury sugar cookies.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As character, singing) One from mom and daddy, one grandma came to bring.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As character) Thanks, Grandma.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As character, singing) One from Uncle Charlie (ph), and one from Burger King.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #13: It's Burger King Christmas gift certificates.


TANNER: In 1975, there was a professor of marketing named Donald W. Hendon. And he wrote this Op-Ed in marketing news. And he argued that the product life cycle in which a product is introduced in the marketplace, it grows and matures and it saturates the marketplace and then eventually declines - he said that that concept, that model, should be updated to account for this new trend where product sales actually increase after they decline. And he called this the nostalgia tale.


TANNER: He writes that nostalgia isn't a passing fad and that marketing needs to take it seriously. And maybe instead of always trying to find something new to sell, we can sell something that people haven't seen in a while, and they're going to like it because they're going to feel nostalgia for it once we reintroduce it into the marketplace.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And that, of course, has not slowed. I mean...

TANNER: No (laughter).

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: I think (laughter)...

TANNER: Wow. No way.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #14: (As character) You might not remember us, but we met in the '90s.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #15: (As Cookie Monster) Hey, Siri. Set timer for 14 minutes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #14: (As character) We are members of Generation Y...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: OK. 14 minutes and counting.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #14: ...(As character) As an yin-yang...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #15: (As Cookie Monster) Waiting for cookies.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #14: ...(As character) Yo-yo.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Anyone, you know, listening to this now can just think about what we're experiencing today when it comes to...


LEBO M: (Singing in Zulu).

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...You know, reboots of movies and reruns of shows.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Next up, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," the - oh, you hear that song?


WILL SMITH: (Rapping) Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped-turned upside down.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So you might remake something that's already been made.


SMITH: (Rapping) I'll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Or you might just watch the same thing over and over and over again.


TONY BENNETT: (Singing) I know I'd go from rags to riches.

RAY LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So I'm wondering if you could give us a few specific ways that we're seeing the consumer nostalgia play out today and why? Is it because we've just run out of good ideas, and so we're just recycling things?

TANNER: (Laughter) Well, it does seem like - that people are running out of ideas. That is a completely normal sentiment to have when it's one Marvel film after the other.


TOM HIDDLESTON: (As Loki) You were made to be ruled.


TANNER: One reboot after the other.


HIDDLESTON: (As Loki) It will be every man for himself.


TANNER: There was a scholar of nostalgia named Fred Davis. He wrote a book in the 1970s called "Yearning For Yesterday." And he said in the late 1970s that there was this nostalgia wave. I would argue that we are also experiencing a nostalgic wave. I'll be frank with you. I kind of thought it would have crested and fallen apart by now. Because you could trace this wave back some 20 years. That's one of the reasons why I believe that nostalgia is sort of the defining emotion of our time in that the last 20 years has seen one kind of nostalgia wave after the other.


TANNER: And they all kind of tend to follow major crises.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: A plane just hit the World Trade Center.



TANNER: 9/11 and the, you know, nostalgia for the American homeland that used to be.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: ...The craziest day they have ever seen in these markets, veteran traders saying they've never seen anything like it.

TANNER: Or the Great Recession, the 2008 collapse - global collapse - of the economy, and the nostalgia for, you know, some kind of safety and stability.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: When did the world change? Check your camera.

TANNER: And then, of course, COVID-19.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Snapshots in time that now feel a lifetime away - a concert, a walk with a friend, a family get-together, a new haircut.


TANNER: And so it makes sense why people would want to seek these things out because they're comfortable in times of chaos and crisis.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Why does that lend itself to nostalgia?

TANNER: Well, if you take the COVID pandemic - this major global crisis in which things not only - lives didn't only change drastically. They changed really quickly. One minute you're living your life, and the next minute, you were locked down.


TANNER: When one's life world changes that drastically, that's where nostalgia shows up. And so if a crisis is big enough to change your daily life, the way that you live and interact with other people, how you make your money, how you survive, how you socialize - if something comes along and affects you and changes all of those things, then you're going to naturally yearn for the stability that you had before. Because even if it didn't seem stable at the time, well, gosh, things are so much more unstable now. I'd give anything to go back then. So in the midst of that shock when you lose control and lose the daily routine of your life, which is your reality, then we'll turn to nostalgia to weather the crisis.


QUAD CITY DJ'S: (Singing) Welcome to the Space Jam. Here's your chance, do your dance...

TANNER: It's one of the reasons why you have something like a "Space Jam" reboot.


DON CHEADLE: (As Al G. Rhythm) Welcome, King James.


TANNER: ...Or one "Star Wars" film after the other.


TANNER: There is some evidence to indicate that when people feel nostalgic, they're more likely to part with their money. They're more likely to spend money, especially if they think if they spend that money, then they'll be able to, like, have that thing that they're nostalgic for. And so I don't think there's any accident at all that these large media companies like Disney, Warner Bros are making films loaded with nostalgic references. Because they know that they're going to attract people's attention.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And Grafton says this nostalgia baiting has inevitably seeped into other parts of our lives, including our politics.

TANNER: Probably the best, most recent example of nostalgia and politics would be Donald Trump, who promised to make America great again, a phrase that still has currency with many of his supporters.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It's a phrase he borrowed from Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign.


RONALD REAGAN: For those who've abandoned hope, we'll restore hope, and we'll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again.

TANNER: That nostalgic pledge really resonated with lots of Americans. And then Joe Biden had his own kind of nostalgic phrase. He talked about building back better. And there was sort of this nostalgic return to the Obama era, back when people thought things were better before Trump got in office. And it ultimately served him well. And you could see this in American presidential elections for years and years.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So it's really everywhere now. And it's interesting because it's capitalizing on this thing that has evolved from being seen as a bad thing to a mostly good thing. And then it kind of saturated the market. So I'm wondering what type of impact you think that has on how the everyday person relates to and views nostalgia. Because they're starting to see it as something that's commodified.

TANNER: Well, there seems to be kind of a distrust of nostalgia. And some of that is, I think, left over from its days of it being perhaps pathological. I think that there are traces of its medical origins to this day; a leftover belief that one's nostalgia could drive them to utter destruction. You know, and if enough people in a population are nostalgic, that might lead to the end of that country or that group of people or whatever.

And so I think a lot of our distrust of nostalgia comes from the way that it's been used in politics and by the private sector. Because it does seem kind of gimmicky. I mean, the "Space Jam" reboot doesn't seem like a movie, it seems like it's designed to just make the company money and, like, that's it.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Which can create a kind of stagnant, even stale, environment. That's one aspect of nostalgia. It can hold you back, get you kind of stuck. And as undesirable as that might sound to you, it sounds pretty good to politicians and corporations who are doing everything they can to tap into that nostalgia and, almost like a drug, keep you with them.

TANNER: They want to keep people in somewhat of a low-level nostalgic state or in a state of agitation or anger so they're constantly scrolling on Twitter, so they're constantly purchasing more nostalgic goods and streaming more nostalgic content. So there has been a change from disciplining it out of people to almost encouraging it in a specific way. And it then therefore defines nostalgia's value in a specific way, i.e. as something that sort of reinscribes people as consuming, scrolling, technocratic subjects.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Consuming, scrolling, technocratic subjects who depend more and more on the past, real or imagined, to exist in the present and envision the future.

TANNER: We have to have some sort of connection to the past in order to move into the future and in order to build a more equitable future. Some of this requires a historical knowledge, like knowing how things really were. But we always aren't totally sure how things really were. And also, sometimes we have to cut through some of the propaganda offered to us about the past in order to know how things really were. And sometimes nostalgia is a thing that sort of cloaks or fogs historical reality.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In a way, nostalgia's always been more about dealing with the present than about capturing any real sense of the past. And while it can be used to manipulate and deceive, it can also help us cope with all these other emotions we have, like loneliness, sadness, anger, grief.

TANNER: ...Especially at a time when so many people are not just grieving the loss of loved ones during the pandemic, but also in sort of a long-term grieving process as it comes to - you know, when it comes to, like, the environment or something. We have to face down this horrible thing called global warming. And it kind of feels, like, that we're always already grieving the end of the world. More people are going to feel this kind of intense nostalgia moving forward, whether they lose people because of fires or landslides or hurricanes or COVID or what have you. It's a crazy world, and things seem to only be getting stranger and weirder and worse. We're going to have to get used to feeling this way, and we going to have to know what to do with all of that nostalgia.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So will nostalgia helped build our future or destroy it? It's probably not one of the other because like our memories, nostalgia is a jumbled kaleidoscope of things that fade and morph, things that - however imperfect - are familiar. And after all these examples of nostalgia and how it's been misunderstood and misused, it's also a lot bigger than that whole debate. The same way that nostalgia doesn't make you feel good or bad, nostalgia probably isn't good or bad; it's just something that's deep inside of us that we can't really control but that, if we want, we can conjure. For me, it's Yusuf/Cat Stevens, yes. But it's also an old pillowcase I stole from my grandpa's house years before he died. My grandpa and that house had such a particular smell, and somehow, after all these years - maybe because I don't wash it - the pillowcase is still swimming in it. It's like a magic trick that tricked time, tricked loss, tricked grief - my grandpa perfume. And for Grafton Tanner, it's Daft Punk on cassette tape.

TANNER: And we have to kind of sometimes take elements from the present, as it slips into the past, with us into the future, like my cassette tape or a pillowcase or anything, you know? Those are crucial talismans, these objects and these things that hold these memories. They're important for us to be functional human beings. You know, my cassette tape, that doesn't destroy the world. It surely doesn't destroy my world. To this day, I firmly believe that the best way to experience that album is on cassette tape or maybe, like, blaring from some giant speakers in a club or something.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me, who feels nostalgic when I eat falafel. It was one of my dad's favorite foods.

ARABLOUEI: And me, who feels nostalgic whenever I hear '90s hip-hop. And...

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu, and I am nostalgic about the summers I spent in my parents' homeland.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Laine Kaplan-Levenson, and I have shared enough for one day.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine, and I'm nostalgic right now for this giant redwood tree that just got cut down next door to my house.

VICTOR YVELLEZ, BYLINE: Victor Yvellez, and I'm nostalgic for baseball games at Dodger Stadium with my father.

YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni, and I feel nostalgic whenever I eat chicken wings from a Chinese restaurant. It reminds me of Friday nights at my mom's tiny apartment in Harlem, where she would order Chinese food and host these boisterous get-togethers where everybody'd talk politics. Those chicken wings continue to be a delight to the senses.

ADRIANA TAPIA, BYLINE: Adriana Tapia, and lately I've been listening to Shakira's first albums a lot, like more than usual. So I've been feeling deeply nostalgic about red hair - (non-English language spoken) - pre-crossover-era Shakira.

MIRANDA MAZARIEGOS, BYLINE: Miranda Mazariegos, and I'm nostalgic about spending summers by the lake when I was a child.

TAMAR CHARNEY, BYLINE: Tamar Charney - vinegar or anything that smells like darkroom chemicals can make me really nostalgic for the days before photography, music and pretty much everything else became digital ones and zeros.

ANYA STEINBERG, BYLINE: Anya Steinberg, and I'm nostalgic for the holiday "Harry Potter" movie marathons on TV.

ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to Farai Maseka (ph), Dimitri Abesos (ph), Avi Wolfman-Arent, Michael Bars (ph), Renata Hahn (ph) and our own Victor Yvellez for their voiceover work.

ARABLOUEI: Also, thanks to Marie Abe (ph) and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was mixed by Alex Drewenskus.

ABDELFATAH: Finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlinenpr.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening.


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